Opinion: Righties defend dismissed lefty law dean Chemerinsky
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In case you hadn’t heard, longtime USC law professor and prolific public commentator Erwin Chemerinsky, more recently of Duke University, was unhired Tuesday just one week after being hired as dean of the brand spanking new UC Irvine Law School. The reason? His liberal politics, he says. From the L.A. Times story:
Chemerinsky said in an interview today that UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake had flown to North Carolina on Tuesday and told him at a hotel near the airport that that he did not realize the extent to which there were ‘conservatives out to get me.’ [...] He said that ‘concerns’ had emerged from the UC regents, which would have had to approve the appointment, Chemerinsky said. The professor said Drake told him that he thought there would have been a ‘bloody battle’ among the regents over the appointment.
Drake is issuing no-comments everywhere, plus this non-statement. Excerpt:
Over the past several months, UC Irvine has conducted a nationwide search for the founding dean of our School of Law. Last week, we made an offer to Duke Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, an eminent academician, legal scholar and commentator. The offer was contingent on approval of the UC Regents. Since then, I have come to the very difficult conclusion that Professor Chemerinsky is not the right fit for the dean’s position at UC Irvine at this time. I met with him on Sept. 11 to inform him that we were rescinding our offer and continuing the recruitment process. Professor Chemerinsky is a gifted academic and his credentials are outstanding. I respect him greatly. My decision is no reflection whatsoever on his qualifications, but I must have complete confidence that the founding dean and I can partner effectively in building our law school.
UPDATE: Drake tells The Times Chemerinsky erred gravely by publishing an op-ed in this newspaper. Reaction has been swift, and almost universally negative, particularly (in the words of blogger Gay Patriot), among ‘bloggers who themselves are right of center.’ A sampling of those:
Erwin is a man of the left, of course, but a remarkably distinguished and accomplished scholar who enjoys the esteem of professors, jurists and practioners across the ideological spectrum. [...] This is an astonishing and disgraceful episode, which, if perpetrated against a conservative, would rightly lead to a massive outpouring of outrage directed at the university that had allowed such a purge to occur. I will be astonished if any reputable scholar agrees to take the job over Erwin’s broken contract, and many professors who would otherwise have welcomed the chance to join the UC system will be wondering about the Administration of such a place, even if they find someone to agree to be dean.
OKAY, THIS IS JUST WEIRD: Hiring and firing Erwin Chemerinsky in one week? Because it turns out he’s too liberal? First of all, who doesn’t know about Erwin’s politics? Certainly anybody who managed to hire him without knowing his political leanings would have to have been grossly negligent in their evaluation. Second, he’s a nice, fair guy regardless of his politics -- which aren’t that liberal by law school standards -- and which just shouldn’t matter anyway. Perhaps there’s more to this story than we’re hearing, though I’m not sure what it could be, but it makes absolutely no sense as reported.
To see more outrage, keep reading after the jump.
Chemerinsky is indeed very liberal and very outspoken. He particularly irritated many religious conservatives by lumping Christian fundamentalists with Islamic fundamentalists as threats to democratic principles. So argue with him, but don’t try to get him fired. For one thing, the chancellor had plenty of time to think about the impact of hiring Chermerinsky, and to reject him if he chose. But it’s disgraceful to hire the man, fire him immediately and then explain that you are doing so to cave into political pressure. The chancellor, the school and Chemerinsky all suffer from this sort of amateurish behavior.
Chemerinsky’s name is almost synonymous with a certain set of liberal/civil libertarian political views. This either means that UCI is not being forthright about its reasons for firing Chemerinsky or officials there are amazingly unaware of the world around them. In my experience dealing with Drake on one of his university’s health-care scandals, he seemed anything but forthright, insisting that the problem was not a failure, but a failure to be successful. Drake mishandled the Muslim vs. Jewish war on campus thanks also to his lack of resolve. But this really takes the prize. I agree with Chemerinsky on some matters and disagree with him on others, but he would have been an excellent and fair-minded dean for UCI — a top-notch national figure that would have done UCI proud.
As regular readers know, I’m not a fan of law professor Erwin Chemerinsky’s politics or the implicit left tilt of the plans for the new UC Irvine law school, but I’m also no fan of firing people because of their political views. If true, that’s just ridiculous. Chemerinsky’s a very liberal guy, with whose stated views I routinely disagree, but he’s not out there on the radical fringe. Moreover, to fire someone because they’re a target of political attacks sets the worst kind of precedent for all of us in legal education - on both sides of the aisle - who dare express political views.
Chemerinsky is an extremely prominent and widely respected legal scholar. A brand new law school like Irvine was very fortunate that he was willing to become its dean. To be sure, I don’t know much about Chemerinsky’s administrative skills; some outstanding scholars are poor administrators (and vice versa). But lack of administrative talent on Chemerinsky’s part doesn’t seem to have been the reason for Irvine’s reversal. The Irvine decisionmakers were simply foolish to believe that Chemerinsky’s hiring would produce a major backlash from conservatives that could harm the school. Many prominent law schools have deans significantly more left-wing than Chemerinsky. None of them has attracted a significant conservative backlash for their dean hiring decision, and certainly none has suffered any real harm from such conservative criticism as did occur. Chemerinsky is unquestionably a liberal, but his views on legal issues are actually quite typical of the overwhelmingly left of center legal academy. I can easily name plenty of prominent constitutional law scholars significantly further to the left than Chemerinsky is. Those conservative and libertarian legal scholars who have commented on Irvine’s decision have been uniformly critical.